Thursday, April 26, 2012

Telling true stories at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Leona Canute Jones was inspired to tell her truth at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  Regional Event in Victoria in hopes it will help her children and grandchildren have better lives
I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regional event in Victoria recently, and was extremely moved by the people I met, the things I heard and saw, and the camaraderie I felt between all those present, native and non-native. The Commissioners noted the size of the non-native crowd (apparently about 1,000 of us), the biggest white crowd so far at one of these events, and said how much they appreciated the support and desire to listen on the part of the greater community. I felt, quite frankly, honoured to be there and to witness and be welcomed to such an intimate sharing, and to see cultural events and learn from the exhibits as well.
One of the people I met there was Leona Canute Jones (you'll see her above surrounded by her grandchildren and children) and I learned that she was speaking at the sharing panel to tell her own story of what it has been like to be an "intergenerational survivor", that is, the child or grandchild, even great-grandchild of a residential school student, or 'survivor". It was particularly poignant to me to realize anew that the impact of the dysfunction, low self esteem, and anger felt by students at the residential schools goes on...generation after generation. It is widely known, so this category of "intergenerational survivor" is part of the TRC vocabulary. It is estimated there are 287,350 intergenerational survivors in Canada. 
So, I listened to Leona talk about how her parents' experiences in residential school marked them, drove them to alcohol and contributed hugely to the problems Leona and her siblings and relatives face, and have faced, all through life. The quiet courage of Leona and others who told their stories, not sparing themselves from admitting they are part of the cycle of abuse and drug and alcohol addiction, is amazing and moves me every time I think about it. Thank you, Leona and all those who told their truths, difficult as that is...we hope it will start the healing process for you and for all of us.
One of my former students in the Aboriginal Employment Training Program in Cowichan, where I taught for nine years, who has become my friend and is in touch often, also agreed to tell me again the horrific stories of her experiences at Kuper Island Residential School in the 60s. These memories included the suicide of her 10-year-old cousin, who couldn't face life after being beaten yet again by the teachers, those very people who were supposed to protect and guide him. My friend also remembers when two boys at the school tried desperately to escape and set out in the water, only to be "captured" and severely punished later. Others died trying to leave. It is hard to believe, I know, but it is undeniably true. How could things have gone so horribly wrong for so many children...and those entrusted with their care???
It is a part of our history we all need to hear and remember and pledge to never let happen again. It reminds me of the power of story, and here is one of my favourite quotes about the need for our stories, as quoted from Barry Lopez's book Crow and Weasel,
"The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive; that is why we put these stories in each others' memory. That is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations."
Thank you to all of you who are not forgetting your obligations, who are having the strength to give your stories away where they are needed. We all need to hear them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Family Caregiver Week coming up in BC

Family outings now often include 4 generations

Family caregiving, that is, the unpaid care we give to the people we love who need assistance, especially as they age, is both a joy (so often now we have four or even five generations together, enjoying each other!) and a challenge...when caregiving becomes difficult or overwhelming for families who can't easily afford the time or the money to be there as much as they'd like for their parents or elderly friends. In BC, nearly 75% of family caregivers (which may include those who help out part or fulltime) are also part of the workforce, so juggling all the demands on their lives can be quite a feat.
But we're lucky here in Victoria to have the Family Caregivers Network  Society (FCNS)  that offers so many programs, workshops, and support groups for those involved in family caregiving, and aims to be the hub for family caregiver resources for all of BC.  Look for the workshops and opportunities coming up during Family Caregiver Week in BC May 5-11, 2012, and be part of the celebration.
And while it's great to celebrate our long-lived families, we know that more and more of us are feeling burned out, stressed, and exhausted from the demands of fulltime caregiving with a parent at home....and if you are one of those people, you may find support and some surprising assistance for you at the FCNS. They have a great newsletter you can sign up for online too. And I think you'll love the upbeat attitude and warm understanding of ED Barb MacLean and the others at FCNS who are there to help's a great resource.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Seeing Eye to Eye (i2i), inter-generationally!

Friends, photo by Sharon MacKenzie

For a long time, I've regretted the fact that there seem to be so few opportunities in our North American society these days for multigenerational friendships and shared times with people from other age groups. Even weddings are sometimes "no kids please" and that was one of the few places where we could be sure that generations would mingle.
So, it was with great joy that I learned about Canada's own i2i (eye to eye) Intergenerational Society, the brainchild of Sharon MacKenzie, a teacher and activist who has made it her mission to create opportunities for young and old and middle aged to come together and learn from each other, form friendships and have fun too.
Hugs are great at any age!
 Photo by Sharon MacKenzie
Sharon has promoted the idea of Intergenerational Learning (IG) for many years, including setting up an "immersion" program known as the Meadows School Project, in Vernon, which offered classes to middle school students right within a retirement home for 8 weeks of the year....and daily opportunities to learn with seniors as buddies. That program is now being duplicated in Williams Lake in a new project they refer to as "Too Cool 4 School." Graduates of the Meadows School Project, including both former students and elders, rave about the difference it made in their lives and in the lives of both young and old. A whole variety of intergenerational projects from across Canada, are listed at the i2i website, and will warm your heart, frankly, as you read about them. They've certainly moved me!

IG nature walk. Photo by Sharon MacKenzie
June 1, 2012 is Intergenerational Day, and June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, an event
that some of the i2i kids are helping to promote as they join the fight against elder abuse, another
impressive side effect of the work of the i2i Society. This group does, and oversees, such good things...
it's worth checking it out and I hope you will.
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Thursday, April 5, 2012

The True Meaning of an Elder

May and Skip Sam with multi-generations of their family  

I've thought many times, for many years, about the way the term Elder is used by the First Nations here in British Columbia, and I wish, quite frankly, that we had an equivalent concept, history, and application in the non-native population. I wanted to learn more about how Elders themselves understand the term, so I interviewed five Coastal Elders recently, and it was moving to hear them talk about the roles they play in their communities, and their hopes for the children and the future. In fact, when I called May Sam, (pictured above with some of her large family), to set up a time to come to see her and her husband Skip, May immediately suggested I come at 3:30, so I could be there after school and would see them within the family setting that includes great-grandchildren and all the generations of their family. 

Scott Sam
May and Skip's son Scott, a "young Elder", or "Elder-in-training", as he puts it, talked to me about the two uses of the term elder in his culture. It can be simply a term to describe all the older people ("We'll invite the elders"), but it can also be the carefully applied title describing those people who have accumulated great wisdom and who are consulted as a respected advisor on family or community matters. This is the use I wanted to hear more about. May and Skip are often called on to help a family in crisis, to pass on their teachings of the Coast Salish to the younger generation (May does this often with university students too) or to pray with a family facing illness or death. Scott is often called too as a witness at important moments or family events.

Alberta and Dan Billy and me (Star) at the Quadra Island United Church

My longtime friends Alberta and  Dan Billy are Elders of the We-Wai-Kai band of the Kwagiulth nation on Quadra Island and they told me about how they were chosen, even as children, to be taught the ways of their people, so they could pass on these teachings to the next generations. Dan has been a band councillor now for more than 40 years, working on Treaty negotiations most recently, and Alberta worked for years to bring about the apology from the United Church for the abuses of residential schools,  while she was also an active member of the Quadra Island United Church herself. I think that's one of the things I admire most about Alberta: her ability to bridge cultures as she works for the betterment of all of us. She's now involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also with workshops and ceremonies that help the non-native culture understand the wisdom and history of BC's First Nations.

May Sam with her great-grandson, reading  Yetsa's Sweater, 

I'm always so impressed with how important it is to the Elders to pass on the teachings to the younger people and especially to the children. May Sam is an accomplished knitter of Cowichan sweaters and was the "model" for the wonderful children's book Yetsa's Sweater, which, as a matter of fact, I'm giving to MY granddaughter as a birthday gift this year. It's time for us to spend more time learning from each other, building bridges, and celebrating the rich heritage of all the peoples of British Columbia. We are so lucky to live here, and to have the Elders to learn from.

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